Trump returns to what got attention during the campaign with a freewheeling news conference

President Trump tried to shrug off one of the rockiest presidential starts in recent history by returning Thursday to  comfortable terrain: an unwieldy news conference in which he was at turns combative, aggrieved, funny and nostalgic for the spontaneous give-and-take that characterized his campaign.

“I turn on the TV, open the newspapers, and I see stories of chaos, chaos, yet it is the exact opposite,” Trump said from the White House East Room. “This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine.”

Trump countered that all of his early setbacks were the fault of others, the product of “fake news” reporting or both.

“I inherited a mess,” he said. “It’s a mess at home and abroad.”

For well over an hour, he deflected and hedged about whether his campaign staff was in contact with Russian government officials before his election, saying in lawyerly fashion that “nobody I know of” had and that he personally had no business involvements with the country.

Trump defended his ousted national security advisor, Michael Flynn, saying Flynn acted appropriately in discussing sanctions with Russia during the transition but was asked to resign because he misled Vice President Mike Pence about those contacts. And Trump continued to complain about a federal appeals court’s decision to block his temporary ban on travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries, while promising to issue a new order next week that he said would withstand judicial scrutiny.

White House aides said Trump had been frustrated that his message was not getting through to the public in the initial phase of his presidency and was determined to grab hold of the narrative. So the media-conscious president bypassed the many people who have been speaking on his behalf and held the news conference, which was announced less than two hours beforehand. It was his first solo news conference since becoming president, though he had held several shorter forums with visiting heads of state.

And unlike those sessions, in which he almost exclusively took questions from news outlets his administration considers friendly, this time he mixed things up directly with several of the mainstream media outlets he loves to denounce — and to diligently follow.

Trump has not fully adjusted from his freewheeling campaign, where he had an unquestioned enemy in Hillary Clinton, no federal bureaucracy to combat and the freedom to avoid tricky domestic and foreign problems. His White House staff remains thin, decentralized and plagued by leaks and infighting. His legislative agenda has confused many would-be allies in Congress. And the early forced resignation of Flynn has prompted bipartisan calls for investigations about his presidential campaign’s ties to Russia.

“I fired him because of what he said to Mike Pence — very simple,” Trump said.

“It certainly would have been OK with me" if Flynn discussed sanctions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak when President Obama was still in office, Trump said.

“I didn’t direct him, but I would have directed him because that’s his job,” he said.

Flynn's discussion of sanctions while another administration was still setting U.S. policy was seen by many people outside Trump’s circle as inappropriate, and possibly illegal.

Trump repeatedly denounced the leakers in the government who have fueled the stories about Flynn, Russia and his sometimes quarrelsome calls with foreign allies. But he maintained that the stories themselves were “fake news.”

It was a difficult balance — “The leaks are absolutely real. The news is fake,” he said at one point — and Trump acknowledged his problem with the media was often more in the delivery than the facts, though he did dispute several aspects of a New York Times report about his campaign’s contacts with Russia.

“The tone is such hatred,” he said. “I'm really not a bad person, by the way. No, but the tone is such — I do get good ratings, you have to admit that — the tone is such hatred.” 

Trump seemed to be grasping for a new start during the news conference. He talked frequently about Clinton, insisting she would have dealt more poorly with Russia and bringing up old claims that she had cheated in one of the debates with her primary opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders, by getting a question ahead of time. He boasted falsely about the size of his electoral victory, then told a reporter who carefully corrected him that he got the number from someone else.

He spoke enthusiastically about the crowds at his campaign rallies, publicly relishing the one he has scheduled for Saturday in Florida. The rally in Melbourne is being put on by his 2020 campaign, what is perhaps the earliest reelection event in presidential history.

“I heard — just heard that the crowds are massive that want to be there,” he said.

Trump also pointed out the many executive orders he signed that addressed campaign promises. Some of them, on topics such as easing Obamacare and building a wall on the border with Mexico, carry more symbolism than impact on the law. But others, including shifts in immigration enforcement policy, made swift changes to how federal agencies operate.

But Trump went further, insisting that even the immigration ban had gone off without a hitch before the courts blocked it — “The rollout was perfect,” he said — despite confusion at airports and initial uncertainty that led to the lengthy detentions of many people, forced some with valid visas to be sent home and in all led to some 60,000 visas being invalidated.

Though Trump appeared angry and aggrieved as he began by listing a long roster of achievements, he seemed to grow happier as he bantered with reporters about their ratings and whether they were asking tough questions.

“I won with news conferences and probably speeches,” Trump said. “I certainly didn't win by people listening to you people. That's for sure. But I'm having a good time. 

“Tomorrow, they will say, 'Donald Trump rants and raves at the press,'" he continued. "I'm not ranting and raving. I’m just telling you. You know, you’re dishonest people.”

There were also awkward moments, such as when he responded to an African American reporter’s question about the Congressional Black Caucus by asking whether she could arrange the meeting.

Trump’s attacks on the media and repeated mentions of his defeated Democratic opponent – he mentioned “Hillary” 12 times – may not change the minds of people who dislike him, but could help rally his supporters. That’s important in a country where an overwhelming percentage of voters already hold distinct opinions about him, negative or positive.

Three-quarters of Americans either strongly approve or strongly disapprove of Trump -- a much higher level of strong feelings than for any previous president at this stage, the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found in a survey released Thursday.

Overall, the survey, which was conducted last Tuesday through Sunday, found that 56% of Americans disapproved of Trump’s performance in office and 39% approved. That’s similar to several other recent polls, although it differs from the poll by Rasmussen, a Republican favorite, which Trump cited at Thursday’s news conference. That survey found 55% of Americans approving of Trump’s performance in office.

Trump seems to be betting that a return to campaign mode will reboot his fortunes, at least among those core supporters.

His unorthodox campaign style, and particularly his off-the-cuff, stream-of-consciousness rallies and news conferences, confounded fellow Republicans and later Democrats. As he was closing in on clinching his party's nomination last spring, he addressed criticism that his style was "not presidential" — insisting he could be when he chose to be.

"I will be so presidential, you will be so bored," he said in an interview after he won the New York primary.

But in his nearly four weeks in office, Trump has seemed — even more than many of his predecessors — uncomfortable with the quick shift from politics to policy, the weight of the obligations he inherited and the incessant challenge of his political opponents.

He has escaped from Washington each weekend to return to his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla., and the life he gave up for government service.

While some Republicans watch Trump's unfolding tenure with increasing trepidation, some of his earliest backers in Congress told him Thursday that their constituents like what they see from the administration. "In our district, his approval rating is through the roof," Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), leader of what he called the "Trump caucus" in the House, later told reporters. "His supporters know that he's delivering."

Trump, ever concerned with his reviews, offered his own assessment about 90 minutes after the day’s main public event. 

"We had an exciting news conference before," he said while signing a resolution overturning an Obama-era regulation on the coal industry. “Some people loved it. I think nobody hated it. But I think it was very productive."

noah.bierman@latimes.com

Twitter: @noahbierman

michael.memoli@latimes.com

Twitter: @mikememoli

david.lauter@latimes.com

Twitter: @davidlauter

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